When I Am Afraid

Let me start off by saying: I am doing well. Life right now is full of unpleasant surprises and difficult challenges – but I am doing well and feel optimistic about life.

This past week has been a good week. I did tons of reading (yes, more than usual), continued to interact with other humans (rather than completely isolating myself), handled several stress-inducing situations/appointments well, experienced a huge improvement in physical health, started a new medication I am optimistic about, and was pleasantly satisfied with the performance of my mundane, routine, repetitive responsibilities throughout the week (e.g. shaving, journaling, exercise).

Great. Now that that is over I can start talking about dark and dreary stuff. I’m kidding! But I do really want to talk about some stuff that I am struggling with – but want it to be framed in light of the fact that I am doing well. If I were reporting the weather I would be saying something like, “Yesterday was sunny and warm, though there was a brief rain shower in the middle of the day.” Things are good – but there is always a cloud in the sky.

I want to talk about when I am afraid. I hypothesize that all sin boils down to fear. Adam and Eve chose to eat the fruit because they were afraid God didn’t have their best interests in mind; Cain killed Abel because he was afraid that his relationship with God wouldn’t be good enough if Abel was alive…we are greedy when we believe that there isn’t enough to go around, that if we don’t take it someone else will, and that God will not provide for our needs – we are afraid.

The opposite of fear is trust. I think this is what Scripture means when it talks about the fear of the Lord – it is a reverent understanding, awe, and trust in who God is and what He does. When we do not see God as being all-good, striving to love us the best possible way, when we think His power is diminished or that He is not just – that is when we fear and we choose to sin.

I’m afraid to sin. Isn’t that a good thing? In some senses, but not when it undermines my trust in God, my reliance upon Him and His character. John tells us that perfect love casts out all fear. I do not want to be afraid of sin as much as I want to trust in God – and if I trust in God then the attraction of sin diminishes, b/c I know God is and will provide what is best for me.

Lets talk about how this fear specifically manifests in my life now:

  • I fear that I will lose my faith in God someday.
  • I fear that I will someday have an affair.
  • I fear that the church will succeed and I won’t be able to handle it.
  • I fear that the church will fail and that it will be my fault.
  • I fear that I shouldn’t continue in the pastorate.

The fear of losing my faith has been fairly constant throughout my life – I take succor in knowing that this has been a struggle others have had and survived. Frederick Buechner, John Bunyan, and George MacDonald have been instrumental in helping me survive this fear.

The fear that I will have an affair someday has been fairly constant since I left New York for Pennsylvania (I had a girlfriend in NY and was afraid I would abandon her for one of these college gals I’d be studying with at Cairn) – and it has never abandoned me since. Ohhh God, I think, what if in twenty or thirty years I fail you like this? Why should I even try now if someday I will fail? Interestingly the answer placed in my heart has been, “You need to trust in me. I can keep you from failing…but if you do fail, I can restore you and work through you.”1This has been a theme in my life for some years, it has been reinforced recently as I have read Gordon MacDonald’s Ordering Your Private World and now am working through Rebuilding Your Broken World.

At times (I’d say daily, for a few seconds to a few minutes) overwhelming waves of fear crush me when I think about the church. I feel like I’m not strong enough. Why me, Lord? One man used to say to me frequently, “Dave, how are you so comfortable talking in front of so many people? You must be a really social, outgoing guy!” I’d laugh. No, talking in front of people is easy – they don’t talk back. Talking with people is hard. I feel overwhelmed by the number of stimuli (facial expressions, body language, intonation, the actual words, everything I know about this persons background/history/wounds/strengths; am I leaving others out of the conversation? How do I converse with this individual with whom I have seemingly nothing in common? How do I demonstrate my concern for one person while at the same time not deemphasizing another?) that bombard me. Have me lecture for a few hours – I can handle that…but have me in group discussion – I’m worn out quickly.

I struggle frequently with the self-sacrifice that is required of me as a pastor…and I feel the sacrifices that I have made are insignificant – and that there will be so many more and so many bigger sacrifices required of me in the future and that scares the living daylights out of me.

I tell God, I can’t do this. He answers, “It is up to me how long you do this…and as long as you do this, I will provide you strength. Right now I am not asking you to do this for the rest of your life – just right now. I want you to do it now. Stop piling all of the future onto today’s todo list, you are making life harder than it needs to be.”2I have a sneaking suspicion that God will keep me in the pastorate for the rest of my life…and I do love what I do…but He could surprise me…Personally, I’m a big advocate of pastors remaining and serving a local community over an extended period of time.

Finally, there is the fear that I shouldn’t continue in the pastorate. When I graduated from Cairn I decided not to pursue the pastorate immediately (in large part due to my ongoing struggle with OCD and Depression). I did not feel ready. I had a growing heart for the local community. I believed I was part of an important work with the Nomads (youth ministry) – that God through me was making a difference in teenagers’ lives.

When I was moving from an unofficial pastoral role to an official pastoral role, I was petrified. I had been doing the work of a pastor – but there was something so scary about taking on that official mantle of responsibility (there still is) – the very thought of it releases a wave of anxiety through my body even now.

Most recently, because of the ongoing divorce proceedings between Charity and I, I struggled internally with what I should do…and then struggled in dialogue repeatedly with many individuals about whether it was right for me to remain in the pastorate.

Strangely, while I still ask myself, Should I be in the pastorate? I experience a great peace about remaining in the pastorate in spite of the divorce – it is for innumerable other reasons that I still feel anxiety at times – Am I organized enough? Do I have the social skills? Can I be an evangelist? Am I willing to sacrifice what it takes and will take to be a pastor? Will I someday abandon my faith and in so doing shipwreck the faith of others?

For an anxious, obsessive-compulsive person like me this is extremely strange. Over fairly black and white issues I struggle with whether I should remain in the pastorate, but when it comes to something this controversial – I have peace.

Several weeks ago I received an email from someone who has a lot of legacy influence in my life authoritatively announcing that I should not remain in the pastorate. Not saying that they believed that I shouldn’t be based on their understanding of Scripture, but without a doubt, this is the absolute will of God for you in this situation – get out now! (Don’t worry, I’m sure it wasn’t you, if you’ve taken the time to read this blog post) In spite of the fact that I do not trust this individual’s discernment, their legacy influence on me was still overwhelming.

I didn’t reply. I didn’t want to fight. I didn’t know how to respond. Judge me if you must, but in this relationship, I am loving in the best way I know how…and that is minimal contact.

Within the last few days I’ve had several more painful discussions on the topic.

Sidenote: It is really important to me that everyone know that I want you to talk to me about this subject – especially if you disagree with the decision I am making. It is difficult for me, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t the right thing to do…Do what you believe is right (address what you see as an issue in my life) and know that it is between me and God how I emotionally process it (e.g. if it devastates me, angers me, etc.) – you can’t and shouldn’t take responsibility for that.3On the other hand, if you are a complete jerk in the way you communicate how you feel, that is between you and God…and that is something that you control. PLEASE don’t avoid talking about this with me b/c you are afraid you will hurt me.

In the last conversation I assured the individual that I appreciated them contacting me and discussing the matter with me and that I would be prayerfully considering their advice on the matter. I have done so many times before – and each time it has been raised to me – I have done so afresh.4Not that I intend to do so always, I think we have to resolve things in our minds and move on. In this case, however, I believe it is important to take the time to process with others what is occurring and to give them the assurance that I am in fact taking their words seriously – especially those who are struggling with this decision and have an ongoing/historical relationship with me or the church. I don’t expect things to change, but I want to be open to the possibility that God is speaking through someone to me.5I have wanted to know from God that this is absolutely what should/will happen – instead He has called me to trust Him and to proceed each day in the direction I fully believe is true (and experience significant peace regarding) – while being prepared, should He reveal I should do so – to be humiliated and repentant no matter how far in the process I have come…The thought of which scares me so much that I’d rather just say “forget I ever said anything” just to avoid the possibility of that ever happening.

At the end of the day it comes down to this: Do I know I will always believe? No. Do I know I will never be sexually immoral? No. Do I know that I can handle being a pastor? No. Do I 100% know that I should remain in the pastorate while divorcing or after being divorced? No.

But the reason why I would step away from anything b/c of these uncertainties is b/c of fear…and all I can hear God saying is, “Trust me.” But God, can’t you just give me certainty? “I want you to trust me.” PLEASE GOD! “You are a little thick at times – let me slow it down for you: T-R-U-S-T  M-E.”

I hate apologizing or admitting I’m wrong. I hate it so much that I’d rather not do something if it has any chance of requiring me to apologize later on…but I found out this limits God’s work in my life and other’s lives. Sometimes I need to tell people hard stuff, sometimes I need to loosen up and be more relaxed, sometimes I need to step out even if I am unsure what direction to take – and then, oftentimes, I’ll need to apologize…6I know that that which is not done in faith is sin. In these circumstances there does not appear to be any absolute, clear right answer, and to make no decision is a decision – and so I feel doubt in all directions – so I express my faith in God that He guides aright, and that if I screw up (which I will) and leave His path, He will guide me aright back onto it. and so for me, taking the chance that I might be wrong, that I might have to apologize, that I could fail someday – is the way of growing in faith (and fear) of the Lord.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. This has been a theme in my life for some years, it has been reinforced recently as I have read Gordon MacDonald’s Ordering Your Private World and now am working through Rebuilding Your Broken World.
2. I have a sneaking suspicion that God will keep me in the pastorate for the rest of my life…and I do love what I do…but He could surprise me…Personally, I’m a big advocate of pastors remaining and serving a local community over an extended period of time.
3. On the other hand, if you are a complete jerk in the way you communicate how you feel, that is between you and God…and that is something that you control.
4. Not that I intend to do so always, I think we have to resolve things in our minds and move on. In this case, however, I believe it is important to take the time to process with others what is occurring and to give them the assurance that I am in fact taking their words seriously – especially those who are struggling with this decision and have an ongoing/historical relationship with me or the church.
5. I have wanted to know from God that this is absolutely what should/will happen – instead He has called me to trust Him and to proceed each day in the direction I fully believe is true (and experience significant peace regarding) – while being prepared, should He reveal I should do so – to be humiliated and repentant no matter how far in the process I have come…The thought of which scares me so much that I’d rather just say “forget I ever said anything” just to avoid the possibility of that ever happening.
6. I know that that which is not done in faith is sin. In these circumstances there does not appear to be any absolute, clear right answer, and to make no decision is a decision – and so I feel doubt in all directions – so I express my faith in God that He guides aright, and that if I screw up (which I will) and leave His path, He will guide me aright back onto it.

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